You’ve got your smartphone, you’ve got your music, now you need some head-turning speakers with thumping lows, popping highs and mids that wrap you in a warm aurel duvet. Some are perfect to get feet stomping at the next kegger, others for wirelessly providing a soundtrack while you read in a park, and some are just right to envelope your family in smooth jazz grooves while they sip their morning tea. I loaded up my playlist with everything from Metallica to Kanye to John Hiatt, found the best portable speakers available online, and dissected the listening experience of each to help you pick the perfect gift for your tech-savy, music obsessed loved one.
Altec Lansing inMotion MIX iMT800
Price: $299.99 on the street (OTS)
Six or less: Big sound, and nothing else
This pointy black-and-silver behemoth is full-sized throwback to 90s boomboxes, with the added bonus of an iPod dock. It also has a full graphic equalizer, which is a nice touch for audiophiles, and a clip on remote. That’s where the modern update ends. The unit doesn’t have Bluetooth connectivity—meaning Android phones and other devices have to be hard-wired to the auxiliary input. And instead of using a normal rechargeable lithium ion battery, it draws portable power from eight (expensive) D batteries. That works out to about $20 per 20 hours of battery life, seriously cutting down on the practicality of luggging this stereo to the beach.
But while most other speakers sacrifice power to fit into a backpack, the much-larger MIX delivers in terms of sound. It gets extremely loud and is a bit heavy on the low-end, as a good boombox should be, making it perfect for listening to hip-hop, techno or other punchy music. It’s ideal for house parties or a trip to the cottage, but, at only $30 cheaper than the much smaller, full-featured Bose SoundLink speaker, isn’t quite worth the cash.
Bose Soundlink Wireless Mobile Speaker
Price: $329.99 OTS
Six or less: Top-shelf quality, top-shelf price
The Bose Soundlink is the best sounding, most solidly constructed portable Bluetooth speaker on the market. The size of a large hardcover book, it’s intelligently designed with a flip-down front cover that doubles as a stand, and has weight and construction solid enough to make it a viable weapon in a bar fight. The sound is rich and well balanced across genres of music–Neil Yong’s voice is crisp, high and warbly, and Invaders Must Die, an aggressive techno tune, is fully delivered in all its fury. An equalizer for more sound control would be nice, but the unit’s only real drawback is that it’s about twice the price of its competition—a cost that’s hard to justify considering a deep field of solid contenders.
Logitech Wireless Boombox
Price – 149.99 OTS
Six or less – Lacks looks, packs value
With its effete curves, mostly plastic construction and uninspired button layout, The Boombox isn’t as eye catching, as solidly built or as compact as the Bose Soundlink. But that doesn’t matter for three simple reasons—it’s half the price, packs exactly the same features (mainly Bluetooth connectivity), and has comparable sound quality. It’s still portable enough to easily fit into a backpack, offers six hours of battery life, and fills a large room with ear-catching sound. That said, it sometimes take a few tries to get it connected to a cellphone, and there is a bit of crackle at high volume—made a bit worse on a Bluetooth connection. For slightly less sound in a lamer, bargain-priced package, this speaker beats out the Bose.
Price – $199.99 OTS
Six or less – Booms with premium retro style
The Disco costs $50 more than the Boombox, and has about $50 worth of extra features. It actually looks cool, with a dark grey metal-and-plastic construction that feels less like a toy and more like a serious piece of audio equipment. It gets louder without distorting, and has more presence at the low end. It’s also a little heavier—that’s probably a good thing—has skip and play/pause buttons, and a well designed, if somewhat bulky, Velcro carrying case. But, most importantly, when my playlist shocked me by queueing up Lady Gaga’s Just Dance (I do not remember downloading it) the volume literally made me jump in my seat. Then I found myself bobbing my head, actually immersed in the impressive wall of sound. For a small premium the Disco raises the bar for mid-priced Bluetooth speakers, and strikes what is probably the market’s best balance between cost and quality.
Price $179.99 OTS
Six or less – The best, but only at home.
The SoundPlatform is the perfect Bluetooth device for any room in the house. A built in dock charges your iPhone or iPod. Bluetooth connectivity means, that unlike the MIX Boombox, you can use it wirelessly with Android and other devices. It also has an FM tuner, a remote, and a stylishly minimalist retro design with orange highlights. The sound is much larger than its size suggests, and handles everything from hip-hop to jazz to the shredding on Van Halen’s Eruption with dynamic highs, rich lows and a solid middle. It’s easily on par with the Bose SoundLink, except that it doesn’t have a battery, and is a bit to big to be portable. Still, for the price, sound quality and features, it can’t be beat for home listening.
SoundFreaq SoundStep Recharge
Price – 149.95 OTS
Six or less – Full features, empty performance
The SoundStep is the SoundPlatform’s underachieving younger sibling. It packs all the features of it’s larger older brother—iPod dock, Bluetooth, FM radio, remote—plus it has a battery and is small enough to take to the park. It’s more loaded than any comparable portable speaker, and should be the industry leader, but its sound just sucks. The bass is okay, but highs sound distant, cymbals are tinny and there’s no warmth in the mid-range—the Misfits sound washed out, Wilco lacks any drive, and the bass on k-os’ tracks loses its silky smoothness. Still, it packs lots of volume for a low price, and when it isn’t playing alongside the Bose or Supertooth speakers, the sound difference is pretty tough to notice.
FoxL v2 Bluetooth
Price: $199.99 OTS
Six or less: Ultraportable, shockingly loud sound
The first word I’d use to describe the FoxL is neat. The second is overpriced.
The tiny Bluetooth speaker is the only one on this list that really fits in your pocket, and it gets so noisy that, at full volume, it will literally shake itself off a table (it comes with a tiny foam matt to prevent this). It’s designed to be taken anywhere, featuring a wrist strap, tough metal construction, and a rechargeable eight-hour battery. The FoxL doesn’t have the oomph to fuel a house party, but easily hums along providing background music for a small gathering (and guests will be impressed by the device). Some people might want to shell out $200 for such a tiny, and loud, package, but it’s a better deal to spend $50 less for a slightly less portable speaker with a lot more power.
Cybersnippa Sonar Portable Mini Speaker
Price: $29.95 OTS
Six or less: Worth keeping with you
The Sonar is a tiny, cupcake-sized rechargeable speaker made unique by an unlockable tube that accordions out to enhance bass response, volume and overall sound quality. The unusual design results in a surprising amount of volume and clarity, with impressive bass response. That said, you do get what you pay for, and the Sonar certainly can’t compete with larger or more expensive products. It also lacks Bluetooth, meaning it has to be hard-wired to your mobile device or laptop. However, it costs less than a quarter of the FoxL, and is at least in the same ballpark in terms of sound quality. As such, it is useful for keeping in a dashboard or backpack to provide a soundtrack for last minute excursions.